When Ralf Rangnick sat down and pondered what his first home game as manager of the Austrian national team might look like, it would have been the complete opposite of what happened inside the Ernst Happel stadium last night.
A power outage in Vienna’s District 2 delayed kick-off by more than 45 minutes. The lights momentarily came back on after a short wait, but then went out again, much to the disappointment of the crowd.
Players from both sides emerged from the tunnel to see the stadium MC doing his best to entertain the crowd as the weather dragged on. At one point, he asked them to use their cellphone torches to create a shimmering Mexican wave in the dark.
Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, Coldplay’s Sky Full of Stars, and Sir Paul McCartney’s Hey Jude were also played to try to improve the atmosphere before the soundtrack culminates with the proper Europe The Final Countdown.
So, no, there was virtually no chance that Rangnick thought his first home game for Austria – against Denmark in the Nations League – would start that way.
At 9:35 p.m. local time, 50 minutes after the game was scheduled to start, the floodlights came on and confirmation quickly followed that the game would finally start at 10:15 p.m., giving the teams the chance to complete another warm-up.
“We were all worried the game couldn’t be played tonight,” Rangnick said after his team’s 2-1 loss.
Despite all the unexpected drama, one would think Rangnick’s ride was smoother than anything he experienced during his ill-fated six-month tenure last season as Manchester United caretaker manager.
Even though the 50,000-capacity Ernst Happel is considerably smaller than Old Trafford and was not far from full, Rangnick received a rousing welcome when he was introduced to the crowd for a few moments before kick-off.
Despite nine changes to the side that beat 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia 3-0 in their first game in charge on Friday, Rangnick’s new side have started well, showing intent from the start and pushing Denmark high. Austria turned the ball over twice in the opening rallies and set a marker for how they were going to play.
The irony of an organized and well-drilled Rangnick squad with each player performing their appointed task could not be lost on the Manchester United scout who was present.
They also reportedly noticed their former colleague was working with his chosen assistants, something he was unable to do in Manchester.
Sitting next to him in the dugout was Lars Kornetka, previously his assistant at Lokomotiv Moscow, who provided him with live analysis during United matches by telephone. Kornetka’s thoughts must have been conveyed by coaches Ewan Sharp and Chris Armas to Rangnick at half-time as he led the Old Trafford side for the second half of last season.
When Rangnick wasn’t patrolling his technical area last night, he was often in conversation with trusted Lieutenant Kornetka. He also counts on Peter Pechtold and Onur Cindel.
Despite the good start of the home team, it was Denmark who took the lead. Tottenham’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg faded towards Leeds target Rasmus Kristensen, raced into the box and then converted his team-mate’s cross.
David Alaba nearly equalized directly from a corner on the edge of half-time, forcing Leicester City’s Kasper Schmeichel into a scrambled save.
Rangnick made three changes at the break, with Marcel Sabitzer, Marko Arnautovic and Michael Gregoritsch all coming on.
Two of the substitutes – Arnautovic and Sabitzer – played crucial roles in Xaver Schlager’s 67th-minute equalizer.
Schmeichel was shut down by Sabitzer, forcing a sloppy clearance to Arnautovic, who created space and traded a quick pass for Schlager to score.
The replacements proved inspired, and without a coordinated Austrian press their goal would not have been possible.
“It’s (pressing) what any modern football team should do,” Rangnick said. “Most of the players have been developed and trained in this kind of football. It makes no sense for us to be passive and reactive, it only makes sense for us to be proactive and aggressive.
After the home side missed several chances to take the lead, Jens Larsen ruined Rangnick’s night with an exquisite finish into the top corner for the winner in the final 10 minutes, his effort coming shortly after Arnautovic hit the post.
Despite his defeat, which should be seen as a missed opportunity as France failed to beat Croatia in the evening’s other Group A1 match, Rangnick apparently organized his squad in a way that he could not reproduce at Old Trafford.
On the touchline, the 63-year-old appeared noticeably more relaxed in his new surroundings; he no longer has to worry about the glare and pressure that comes with being Manchester United manager, even though he was only appointed on an interim basis last November as a bridge between the reigns of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and newcomer Erik ten Hag.
Sources close to the dressing room point out that the Austrian players have completely bought what Rangnick is selling them. There are believed to be no issues within the group regarding what a disastrous tenure at United turned out to be, with them finishing just sixth, 35 points behind champions and neighbors Manchester City and on the club’s lowest points total for a season, 58, since 1989. -90.
He’s had just five training sessions since taking on the Austria role, including four before the win over Croatia, and his side have been impressed.
“He’s been really good,” said Real Madrid defender Alaba. Athleticism. “You can see we have a really good plan and you can see it’s working for us on the pitch. He doesn’t want the opponents to be left to breathe. It’s good for us.”
But was the way it happened at United believed?
“I’ve known Ralf since I was 18, and he’s a world-class coach,” added Alaba. “What he has done in the past is something special and now I see it up close. He showed what he can do in Leipzig, Salzburg and Hoffenheim.
“He didn’t have much time in Manchester. He has a very good plan and knows a lot about football.
Behind the scenes, Rangnick is already trying to make his mark – offering suggestions on how to improve a side currently 34th in the FIFA World Rankings who missed out on World Cup qualification by losing 2-1 away against Wales in their play-off semi-final. final in March – and is supported by senior players.
You get the impression that in Austria Rangnick almost holds something akin to messianic status. Fans outside the Ernst Happel Stadium view the German as a victim of Manchester United’s mess rather than the culprit.
“He’s more known for his work at the Red Bull clubs than what happened at Manchester,” says fan Markus Wohry, 24, “I’m delighted to see how he develops the team’s game. I like his style of play.”
Wohry wasn’t the only pro-Rangnick supporter basking in the early summer heat in Vienna ahead of kick-off.
“He’s a very good coach and we appreciate him a lot in Austria,” adds Werner Kanyak, 46. He will do a very good job.
“We know what happened at Manchester United and it doesn’t matter that he didn’t do well. We are happy that he is now with us. We appreciate the experience he has gained at Manchester.
Rangnick may have left Manchester under a cloud and with his planned United consultant role tossed in the trash, but he was welcomed with open arms by the Austrian national team.
And it’s hard not to conclude that it will be their gain and United’s loss.
(Top photo: Christian Hofer/Getty Images)